Strictly Good Advice,
When do I know if I have something worth writing or saying?
Hello, Christian, and thanks for your question. I enjoyed this question because working toward an answer led me to internalize some personally important facts. Confidence in my justification for the quality of the things I write and say is critical for writing an advice column in which there is a total absence of credibility; in more positive language, I am writing from a position of incredibility. Playing tricks on words to make them sound more charitable and generous to yourself is a piece of advice I am giving you for free, because I appreciated the question very much.
My answer to your question has three parts. First, I aim to identify two problem spaces of your question and describe one of them in some detail. Then I will demonstrate a problem with the relationship between your decision to say something and your ability to evaluate that utterance. I will conclude with a practical suggestion, my usual strategy for managing self doubt in my words.
You are uncertain about the value of the things you write or say. I will focus on two main aspects of this uncertainty: (1) the architecture of your self-esteem and (2) your fluency managing different criteria for meaning in different contexts. I have numbered these two points to reflect the order in which they will be presented for discussion. There may be other elements to your indecisive hesitation in sharing your thoughts; you may, for example, be nervous about the worth of your commentary because you suffer from a cognitive disorder that limits your accessible thoughts to facts about toasters, and are desperate for a way to make people see the importance of your insight into various temperatures and durations of toasting, your many valuable experiences preparing the various breads, etc. Such concerns are out of my depth, and so I will stop short of having three things to say.
Maybe you believe that you hold back when expressing yourself, and that this holding back is a consequence of a more foundational deficiency in the credit you give yourself for getting through each day without burning the toast. I observe that moments of anxiety over the legitimacy of my speech find their roots in more general issues with my confidence. Hesitation over whether you should speak what is on your mind is in this sense a superfluous consequence of hesitation over whether you should do anything at all. If you believe that your desires to think and act somehow face goodness – and they may not, e.g., if you’re the type who only appreciates toasters for their potential to incite catastrophic blaze, this advice doesn’t apply – then you should assume that they warrant pursuit. If it helps you, get a T-shirt with a dipping check mark and “JUST DO IT” branded into the chest. This way you can look in the mirror and your question is answered. Or you may imagine some more confident friend or loved one of yours, who thinks you are worth their time. So long as such a person’s existence is in principle possible, we’ve reason to suppose an association between your outward life and other confident people’s interest in it, which would be a good evidential basis for some self-motivated encouragement to speak confidently. There are lots of ways to improve your confidence, and I can’t possibly exhaust them or even give them a fair representation in this column. My point is rather to suggest that strengthening your conviction in your virtues more generally will support your belief that investing in your own words is worthwhile. I will say so much for (1), and continue as briskly as possible because I have been getting a little carried away.
The problem posed in (2) is more complicated, or at least my exposure to literature on the topic has been limited. For these and other reasons I am taking a pass on it. To be fair, I only said that I would explain one of the two numbered points above. If you were unsatisfied with the depth of this discussion and would like to ask a follow-up question, refer to the information given below the column.
If a decision to say something depends on other people receiving it well, and it is impossible to know whether or not people have received it well unless you have already said it, it is thus impossible to decide whether or not to say something depending upon its reception by others. In fact, the speaker is not even in an appropriately informed position to evaluate her own speech, at least not before it has been said, because no one knows what any of the qualities of the speech are, let alone whether or not they can be evaluated generously. This suggests that a preemptive positive judgment may be an unreasonable standard to which to hold one’s own speech. So if you’re looking for a reason why you should choose to say certain things rather than others, it should probably not be that any person likes certain things rather than others; read into that whichever individualist cliché that you like best.
As I promised earlier, I will conclude the advice by describing a practical example illustrating a technique that I use to quickly determine whether one of my mental deliberations is worth verbalizing. The technique is a short list of questions about the statement in question. We will demonstrate the power of these questions by their application to the example.
Consider the toaster enthusiast mentioned earlier. For simplicity’s sake let’s give her a name, something easy, like Toastina. Toastina is at a party, where she is chatting with an attractive classmate who seems to appreciate the difference between variable time versus heat considerations in the most suitable preparation of an average sample of wheat bread. Toastina would like to remark to her peer that, depending on the size X of the slice S, a toasting function of N minutes at temperature T in a vertically oriented pop-up cooker will best prime S for the distribution of butter D at some intersection of these relevant variables. She would be well-suited to ask the following questions about this claim, before she faces brutal indifference at the hand of a potential companion: is what I am about to say vitally important to the interlocutor’s ability to understand what I believe in a sense meaningful to the conversation? Is what I am about to say going to offend someone, and if so, is it an appropriate situation in which to provoke this offense? Does what I am about to say give the interlocutor something to say (or at least think) in response?
In Toastina’s unfortunate case, her rich understanding of the mechanics of toasting are, for better or for worse, indispensable to a comprehensive description of her character, and if you are trying to get someone to know you, such a description is vitally important to the conversation. I see no reason why on the face of things her claim about toast is offensive, so she passes the second interrogative hurdle. At the end of this procedure, we see that Toastina’s impassioned remark about optimal cooking protocol fails to be “worth” saying, unless of course she’s got reason to believe that her partner in conversation has also got something really deep and specific to say about toasting bread, or at least would be interested in some such thing. For now I’ll make the pessimistic assumption that she has not been so lucky as to find a person like this.
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